Recent movements by Hezbollah and the Syrian Army on Israel’s northeast border and the strong likelihood of no US disapproval of any upticks in Israeli militancy regarding the Palestinians, Hezbollah, or its borders, has prompted statements and actions by Israel’s right that portend bad news for Lebanon’s stability and security.
While Lebanon’s government and citizens are pressing for more economic development, stability in the political arena, and incremental reforms needed for infrastructure projects, the war of words on the southern border are heating up, most recently around the visits of Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah military leaders to the area. The most immediate effects are the potential to divert government funds away from development to security, discourage international investors from entering Lebanon, and cast doubt on the stability needed to move ahead with the May elections
Recent flare-ups include the statement from the IDF spokesperson Avichai Adraee telling Hezbollah to refrain from any aggression “because we are going to surprise you if you dare. Maintaining stability in the region is a common interest of the Israeli and Lebanese sides, but if you dare, we will surprise you.” Of course the root cause of the recent resumption of hostile exchanges is Iran’s success in support the Assad regime’s hold on power. Adraee said that “Hezbollah has been working as an Iranian arm in Lebanon and sacrificing Lebanese to foreign interests. [and that Israel] is closely monitoring what Hezbollah is doing as well as what is happening on the border and beyond.”
This past week, the Israel’s security cabinet met several times to review conditions along Israel’s northern border, discussion which were reported to be “extremely significant.” Among the issued reportedly discussed were Iran’s activities supporting the Assad regime, its likely control in the near future over most of Syria, Hezbollah’s possible next actions, and options for dealing with growing Iranian presence in Syria.
Also noted in the article is that PM Benjamin Netanyahu has expanding his conversations with world leaders on Iran’s efforts to set up bases in Lebanon and Syria using Hezbollah and Syrian Shiite militias as proxies. Among his most immediate concerns is that “At the end of December, Assad’s troops, accompanied by Iranian-backed militias and the Hezbollah, took over the Syrian Golan from the rebels, giving the government control over the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War.”
Adding more incendiary comments from Israel, the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said that Hezbollah was the most serious threat to Israel followed by other Iranian-backed jihadist groups in the border areas. Without giving his sources,, Eisenkot mentioned that “Each year Iran sends between $700 million to $1 billion to Hezbollah, $100 million each to Shiite militias in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, rebels in Yemen, and to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorist groups.”
He repeated charges that “the Hezbollah terrorist group has transformed from a so-called defender of Lebanon to an Iranian proxy in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen,” with significant defense capabilities as well as the ability to attack Israel.
Eisenkot noted that with regard to Syria, the IDF will continue to strike targets in Syria to prevent build-up of a military capability and presence on the border by Iranian-backed Shiite militia. These statements came on the heels of a heightened movement of Iranian-backed militias into Beit Jinn, close to the border with Lebanon and the last significant rebel-controlled area on the border.
This is problematic for Israel in that “After years of cultivating ties with rebel-held forces across the border in the Golan, Israel now faces the prospect of the return of forces from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah army and fighters commanded by Iran.” This will also impact Israel’s so-called “good neighbor policy” that provided humanitarian assistance to Syria’s rebel-held villages.
In light of the incremental success of the Syrian regime and its allies inching closer to the border areas, some Israeli analysts are encouraging the Israeli government “to bolster the pockets of non-regime holdouts…[by] quietly trying to broker a cease-fire deal between Druze, Muslim, and Christian areas…to communicate to villagers that they should avoid cooperation with Hezbollah and Iran, and focus on their local interests rather than foreign powers.”
While this may differ in many ways from the South Lebanon Army, which was allied with Israel until it was disbanded in 1980, it poses a threat for Lebanese who would then be exposed to retaliation from the militant and heavily-armed Hezbollah. Today the Iranian presence and influence in Syria most troubles Israel, and could lead to preemptive actions that damage Lebanon’s infrastructure and security capabilities.
What this means for Lebanon in advance of the May Parliamentary elections is unclear. Unless the government has unfettered access to Lebanese civilians throughout the country, there may be challenges to the results and once again push Lebanon into political stalemate.